I can’t say that by the end of The Humours of Bandon, I had figured out how to judge Irish Dancing. I can’t even say that I had figured out where I should be looking. The answer is probably the bottom half of the body — the dancing entirely occurs there, while the top half stays still.
In this case, though, I found myself more transfixed on Margaret Mc Auliffe’s face while she danced. Her expression was one of intense focus, making sure every movement was executed with precision, but also one of intense and shifting emotions — passion, love, anger, confidence, joy, insecurity, disillusionment.
Mc Auliffe’s one-woman show is, to be clear, not a dance show. Rather, it utilizes Irish Dance to communicate a story that is at once incredibly specific and wholly universal. Now performing through June 11 in its final stop on a North American tour, The Humours of Bandon is a sharply executed exploration of how passions can shape identity — and what happens when that passion starts to fade.
Presented by Solas Nua and Fishamble, Humours is the coming-of-age story of Annie, a teenager in Dublin. Inspired largely in part by Mc Auliffe’s own experience doing competitive Irish Dancing, Annie’s goal — her dream, really — is to win the Irish Open Championships. We follow her from 1999 to 2001 as her passion drives her through the highs and lows of working toward that dream.
A dozen or so characters appear alongside Annie — her mom, coach, friend, competitor, schoolmates, etc. — all of whom are played by Mc Auliffe. It’s a bold choice, but Mc Auliffe pulls it off as she fluidly switches between these characters, embodying each with a distinct personality and physicality that makes it feel natural. There’s a humor to this, in a distinctly Irish style of comedy, but it never veers into caricature. At one point, in a feat of both acting and dancing, Mc Auliffe does a fast-paced Irish Dance routine while at the same time performing a scene between Annie and her coach.
Dancing is, understandably, integral to the storytelling of Humours. In fact, movement in general is used constantly to evoke emotion in Stefanie Preissner’s staging. Annie moves frantically when the energy is high, pacing and circling and, of course, Irish Dancing — it is almost like second nature, both to the show and to Annie as a character.
Indeed, Irish Dancing seems, at first, to be woven into Annie’s DNA. It feels crucial to her identity, defining her sense of self and the way people think of her. Defining her identity around this passion, though, clearly comes with a weight. That is not, to be sure, necessarily a bad thing. We can see the drive, joy, and expressiveness that Annie gets out of Irish Dance.
But over time, too much weight can also take a toll. There’s the internal pressure, of course, but also the external pressure from the competition, from her coaches, from tradition and culture. It speaks volumes that throughout the entire show, Mc Auliffe wears green clothing with “Ireland” displayed across the front.
We can see the toll all of it takes as well, over time. It’s in Annie’s voice, the way her tone when she talks about Irish Dance changes. It’s in the lighting, the way it shifts to cooler, darker tones (design by Eoin Winning). It’s in the dancing, still just as precise but less passionate, and notably, done less often as disillusionment begins to set in.
Coming-of-age stories tend to focus on how identities are formed at a time when self-identity isn’t clearly defined, when people don’t quite know what they think of themselves yet. Annie, though, seems to have defined herself already when we meet her. Humours, then, is the story of what happens when Annie feels like she is losing the very thing she has built her identity around.
Disillusionment is portrayed like grieving a lost loved one. Annie struggles to confront what her life, and identity, might look like without its definition. This struggle, and all the complex emotions that come with it, eventually explodes into a climax that is so transfixing I did not realize my jaw had dropped until it was over. (I will not spoil it here. It does, as I’m sure you can guess, though, involve Irish Dancing.)
Annie’s skill, she jokes at one point in Humours, is a niche skill, and the story Mc Auliffe tells here is a niche story. And yet, what makes The Humours of Bandon so effective is that it is a niche story that is as universally human as a story could possibly be.
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission
The Humours of Bandon plays through June 11, 2023, presented by Solas Nua and Fishamble performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE in Washington, DC. Tickets ($45) are available online.
The program for The Humours of Bandon is online here.
COVID Safety: Atlas Performing Arts Center strongly recommending that all audience members wear masks while inside the venue, but they are no longer required. The Atlas Health and Safety policy is here.